Xtra spoke with Pride Toronto executive director Olivia Nuamah at her office on Nov 30, and again over the phone on Dec 5, following Pride Toronto’s contentious annual general meeting on Dec 4. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Xtra: Let’s start with the status of police participation in Pride in 2019. Has the decision been made about what that participation will actually be?
Olivia Nuamah: Pride has a process called the rules of parade entry. You have to apply and every application goes up on our website and people are able to discuss and dispute them. And so, no, we haven’t had any conversations about what police participation may or may not look like in 2019. We don’t want to pre-empt the actual application process.
Xtra: What is your relationship with the police?
Nuamah: I’ve been talking to the police from the first week I started. We meet constantly and regularly. I’ve also been in a parallel process of meeting with the community to gauge exactly how we felt [about police behaviour and attitudes]. It was, to me, important to convey these feelings to the police so that they understood the community had an issue.
Xtra: The issue being racism and racial profiling by police?
Nuamah: Yes, and it’s important to put it that way because the police felt that they had a good relationship with the LGBTQ2+ community. They see [an issue like] carding as a Black community issue, not a queer community issue. So the crux of this and how it got to the point it did in 2016 [with the Black Lives Matter-TO protest during the Pride parade] was because the police didn’t have an intersectional perspective. The conversation about race and intersectional identities wasn’t happening [with the police] in the context of the LGBTQ2+ community.
Xtra: Obviously a good working relationship with police is significant for Pride because you are hosting a massive event that requires city services, like police, sanitation, permits, road closures, and so on. But why do you feel you need to have a partnership with police on the community side of Pride?
Nuamah: First, is because there are community members in Toronto Police Service. And it’s been very moving for me to learn about the experience of LGBTQ2+ officers. They are part of the queer narrative and queer community.
Second, because in the five decades since homosexuality has been decriminalized, there has been a real issue with how the police deal with our community. I can’t imagine how I could sit back and let the police utterly control how they consult with my community and frame my community and come up with solutions to work with my community and not be a part of that conversation.
Xtra: The main function of Pride Toronto is to organize a huge annual festival. So how did Pride Toronto become the centre of this bigger conversation about policing reform? That seems out of your scope.
Nuamah: No other community or organization in the LGBTQ2+ community is doing it. It’s been two years and nobody has stepped up. This begs an important question: What is the capacity of the community to deal with the issue of race and policing as it applies to this community? That’s not to say that those conversations haven’t happened. It’s not to say that there isn’t great work happening inside the community. But in relation to what happened at Pride in 2016, no other organizations were stepping up and having those public policy discussions with police.
Xtra: Pride recently announced two federally funded initiatives. One is a Heritage Canada project. The other is a national consultation on community public safety. Did you approach the federal government for this money, or did they come to you?
Nuamah: I approached them. Very soon after I started at Pride, I wanted to start collaborating with agencies providing direct services to the LGBTQ2+ community [to talk about public policy issues like community safety and policing]. If you’re running a frontline service you don’t have time to do a national research project and have conversations about what the future looks like. But Pride can add capacity to our sector as a whole, because we aren’t busy doing that frontline work.
Xtra: Given that this is a national research project, does Pride Toronto, which is a local organization, have the expertise to spearhead a national project?
Nuamah: We are going to be partnering with universities and with specialists in the local areas. There are people doing work in those different cities that we will immediately connect with. What we are trying to do is create a community of practice that’s national.
Xtra: Where will the federal money go? Have you set up a separate entity for the funding, or will the funding go into Pride Toronto’s general operating budget?
Nuamah: It is not going into Pride’s operational funding budget. Not at all. It will be separate.
Xtra: Is there more of a framework and plan than what’s been announced?
Nuamah: We’re hoping to hire someone by April 2019. Once that person is in place, we will begin our actual outreach across the country and by September we hope to have a robust terms of reference to begin the process of recruiting an advisory group.
Xtra: I know it’s early stages, but what are you imagining this will deliver in the end?
Nuamah: I’m hoping it will be an evidence-based piece of research that will allow us to understand local and national priorities [for community safety].
After this initial conversation with Xtra, Nuamah published an article in Now Magazine on Dec 1 defending Pride Toronto’s decision to work with Toronto Police Services and allow them to apply to participate in the 2019 event. Then, at Pride’s annual general meeting on Dec 4, the membership were allowed time prior to the formal agenda to ask questions about police at Pride. The conversation between the membership and the board and Nuamah grew heated. The chair adjourned the meeting just a few minutes into the formal agenda. Xtra spoke to Nuamah the following day.
Xtra: How do you feel about what occurred at the AGM?
Nuamah: Pride has always had contentious AGMs so it wasn’t all that surprising. I had every impression that what unfolded was going to unfold. We were prepared for that eventuality. A chair has to be able to control the meeting and at the point at which that couldn’t happen it was just time to end it.
Xtra: Do you feel that it was a mistake to have opened with questions about police given that it’s such a charged and difficult issue?
Nuamah: Not addressing it would have meant that the meeting wouldn’t have moved on anyway. It would have been an elephant in the room so ultimately I don’t think it made much of a difference.
Xtra: So what happens now?
Nuamah: We have to have an AGM. That needs to happen and it’s going to happen. How we address the question of police participation and Pride entails a different strategy than we’re talking through at the moment. We fully intend on separating that subject from the AGM itself. We’re trying to wade through how to do that at this moment.
Xtra: When do you think you’ll have the AGM?
Nuamah: We’d probably be looking at January.
Xtra: A lot of people were hoping that you would address whether Pride’s funding is connected to police participation. Is it?
Nuamah: Partially it’s a question of funding. But mostly it’s a question of how we change the outcomes for the most marginalized and how we keep our communities safe. And this is definitely a conversation about how we move that relationship on.
Xtra: So, is it accurate to say that not allowing police to participate would affect government funding and sponsorship?
Nuamah: I know that is a popular line of inquiry. I will honestly say to you that since the police were asked not to participate in Pride [as a group in uniforms and with floats] no sponsor has withdrawn from Pride. And apart from actually missing a deadline we have not also seen cuts in government funding.